I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

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I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
NY Met demuth figure 5 gold.JPG
Artist Charles Demuth
Year 1928
Dimensions 90.2 cm × 76.2 cm (35.5 in × 30 in)
Location Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, also known as The Figure 5 in Gold,[1] is a 1928 painting by American artist Charles Demuth. It has been described as influenced by Futurism and Cubism. Painted as a homage to Demuth's friend William Carlos Williams, the painting references Williams' poem The Great Figure, which describes a fire engine speeding through the streets of New York on a rainy night. The painting's title is a phrase from the poem.

Charles Demuth[edit]

Demuth was known as a painter in the Precisionist style, incorporating clean lines and geometry into images. Art historian H.W. Janson mentions Demuth's interactions with Cubist painters in New York, and the connections between Futurism and Precisionism styles,[2] this particular work was part of a series of five abstract, poster-style portraits Demuth painted between 1924 and 1929 in homage to his personal artist and writer friends: William Carlos Williams, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Charles Duncan and John Marin.[1] He and Williams had become friends when they were both living in the same boarding house in Philadelphia while Demuth was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Williams was attending the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. As with I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, each painting incorporated the artist's name, this portrait series is often described as also including writers Marsden Hartley, Gertrude Stein, Eugene O'Neill and Wallace Stevens, but those four were never completed. The Yale University Art Gallery has the preliminary sketch, in watercolor and graphite, for the Marsden Hartley portrait.[3]

Poem and painting[edit]

William Carlos Williams claims that the inspiration for the 32-word poem The Great Figure[4] (1920) came from seeing a fire engine pass him by, sounding gong clangs and siren howls as it receded in the night, he said he was so struck by the sight that he took paper and pencil out of his pocket and wrote the poem, standing there on the sidewalk.[5] Two lines: "I saw the figure 5/in gold" were taken by Demuth for his painting's title,[6] the upper right corner has an arc, implying a fragment of a large number five, repeated three times in progressively smaller, complete number fives to create an impression of the fire engine moving away from the viewer. The fire engine itself is reduced to an abstracted form composed of red rectangles, but there is a hint of a ladder on the right side and an axle across the bottom. Above the truck are globular streetlamps flanked by sidewalks and buildings in blacks and grays. Demuth conveyed his friendship with Williams by incorporating fragments of his name: "Bill" across the top, and "CARLO" (the "O" cut off and the "S" missing entirely) in yellow dots as in an illuminated theater sign. Across the bottom the painter has placed his own initials "C.D." and also the poet's "W.C.W." in the same size and color.[5]

The painting was first exhibited at Intimate Gallery, New York as "Charles Demuth: Five Paintings," April 29 – May 18, 1929, it is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States of America (MMA). It is described as a combination of oil paint, graphite, ink, and gold leaf on paperboard. Dimensions 35 1/2 x 30 inches (90.2 x 76.2 cm). Demuth died in 1935, at the age of 51 years, he bequeathed the painting to Georgia O'Keeffe. She gifted it to the MMA in 1948 as part of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection,[6] the painting has never been sold.

Roberta Smith described the work in The New York Times: "Demuth's famous visionary accounting of Williams, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, [is] a painting whose title and medallion-like arrangement of angled forms were both inspired by a verse the poet wrote after watching a fire engine streak past him on a rainy Manhattan street while waiting for Marsden Hartley, whose studio he was visiting, to answer his door."[7] Describing its importance, Judith H. Dobrzynski in The Wall Street Journal wrote: "It's the best work in a genre Demuth created, the "poster portrait". It's a witty homage to his close friend, the poet William Carlos Williams, and a transliteration into paint of his poem, "The Great Figure". It's a decidedly American work made at a time when U.S. artists were just moving beyond European influences. It's a reference to the intertwined relationships among the arts in the 1920s, a moment of cross-pollination that led to American Modernism. And it anticipates pop art."[1]

Robert Indiana, a popular and famous artist from the 1960s onward, painted The Figure Five in 1963. It incorporated the three yellow/gold, size-diminishing number fives from Charles Demuth's painting superimposed over a red star,[8] the painting is used as the cover picture of the novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (1992). The painting is included in a book 100 Best Paintings in New York (2008).[9]

Photograph of a framed US postage stamp (2013) of the Charles Demuth painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

In March 2013 the US Postal Service issued a pane of twelve first-class postage stamps portraying modern art, one of which was Demuth's painting, the timing was 100 years after the Armory Show, New York, 1913, which had given many Americans their first look at modern art. The stamp set was titled Modern Art in America 1913–1931 Stamps.[10]


  1. ^ a b c The Wall Street Journal, Judith H. Dobrzynski, "Where Paint and Poetry Meet" retrieved July 10, 2010 Archived January 15, 2018, at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ H. W. Janson (2004). History of Art: The Western Tradition. Prentice Hall. p. 1031. ISBN 978-0-13-182895-7. Archived from the original on 19 February 2018. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  3. ^ Frank, Robin Jaffee (1994). Charles Demuth Poster Portraits, 1923–1929. Arthur Schwartz Sales Co. ISBN 978-0-89467-065-7. 
  4. ^ "The Great Figure by William Carlos Williams". The Poetry Foundation. Archived from the original on 3 August 2014. Retrieved 29 July 2014. 
  5. ^ a b Charles Demuth, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold Archived 2018-01-15 at the Wayback Machine. Kuykendall, Lara. Khan Academy
  6. ^ a b "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" Archived 2017-06-06 at the Wayback Machine. Metropolitan Museum of art (US).
  7. ^ The New York Times, Roberta Smith, "ART VIEW; Precisionism and a Few of Its Friends" retrieved October 26, 2008
  8. ^ The Figure Five Robert Indiana 1963 Archived 2018-01-16 at the Wayback Machine. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington. DC.
  9. ^ MacDonald, Deanna; Smith, Geoffrey (2008). 100 Best Paintings in New York. Interlink Pub Group Inc. ISBN 978-1-56656-696-4. 
  10. ^ Modern Art in America 1913–1931 Stamps Archived 2018-01-14 at the Wayback Machine. United States Postal Service Announcement 13–15 (2013).

External links[edit]

  • The United States of America, a catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on this painting (p.127)